Predecessors is a new feature in which our staff explores how a film or album owes a significant debt to earlier works. This time, Allison Shoemaker revisits five films from five decades that helped make The Danish Girl possible.
Eddie Redmayne’s chasing another Oscar.
In defense of The Danish Girl and Redmayne, it’s worth saying that Lili Elbe is a more than worthy subject for a biopic and that Redmayne (as well as Alicia Vikander) delivers a skilled performance. Still, effectiveness aside, there’s something off-puttingly important and awardable about The Danish Girl — which, for better or worse, is very much the product of the films it follows. It’s a complicated issue: Is a male actor playing a female transgender character something that should be considered awards bait? Is it “transface”?
The fact that we can have such a conversation at all is a mark of progress — it wasn’t so long ago that an Oscar-dominating film featured a character many considered a perpetuation of negative stereotypes, and it was little more than an asterisk at the time. Prior to the ’70s, few trans stories were told at all, and the movies that played with gender identity rarely did so without aiming for humor or horror. Andy Warhol did his thing with the Factory, but mostly it was Norman Bates, Glen or Glenda, and “Well, nobody’s perfect.”
For better or worse, The Danish Girl is Oscar bait of the purest kind. Not all such bait is bad, and not all is good, but the fact that a movie about a transgender pioneer sits so firmly in the mainstream — complete with sensitive orchestrations and a full-press PR campaign — is no small thing. Here’s a look at some of the films that made such a development possible. Some are better than others, but all are bricks in the red-carpet road that The Danish Girl now treads.
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Director: Sidney Lumet
Written By: Frank Pierson, based on a magazine article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore
What It’s About: Sonny (Al Pacino) and Sal (John Cazale) rob a bank at closing time only to discover there’s not much in the way of cash left to nab. Sonny’s an incompetent but not murderous criminal, while Sal’s more cold-blooded, and soon they’re in the possession of hostages and made instant celebrities thanks to the news cameras lined up across the street. It’s a tense film that, while hitting all the expected bank robbery buttons, never becomes trite — as Roger Ebert said in his review, “Lumet is exploring the clichés, not just using them.”
What You Should Know: Like many of the films that follow it in this list, Dog Day Afternoon was based on real events — and the inspiration for Pacino’s character, John Wojtowicz, had some complicated feelings about the movie.
The Impact: This isn’t a movie about gender identity, and that all by itself is remarkable. It’s revealed that Sonny’s motive for the robbery is to get enough money for his partner, who identifies as Leon (Chris Sarandon), can get a sex change operation. Sonny’s also married, and while the movie isn’t short on absurdist comedy, it’s not at the expense of Sonny’s sexuality, Leon’s identity, and their relationship. As the Advocate put it, “While that could have been played for humor in 1975, the love story is tragic and human.” It made a difference for the real-life “Leon,” too: Elizabeth Eden’s eventual transition was financed with Wojtowicz’s share in the film’s revenue.
Essential Scene: “Attica!”
Also See: The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): while it’s unwise to take much about Rocky Horror too seriously — and, if you’re going to go there, it should be said that Dr. Frank-N-Furter is a sexually ambiguous alien and not a transgender human — its impact is undeniable. “Don’t dream it, be it” has been a siren song for misfit high school kids of every gender and sexual orientation for decades now; the film recently entered its 40th year of theatrical distribution, and a Laverne Cox-starring reimagined TV remake is headed for the small screen in fall 2016.
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Director: Robert Altman
Written By: Ed Graczyk (adapted from his play)
What It’s About: Twenty years after James Dean shot Giant, members of a fan club devoted to the late movie star reunite. Throughout their reunion, the secrets they’ve kept tucked tightly to their chests are revealed, and while the device may be a bit of a cliché, the people are anything but.
How is this a predecessor? One member of the fan club, Joe Qualley (Mark Patton), doesn’t show. In his place is Joanne (Karen Black), who, as you can probably guess based on the film’s inclusion in this article, has transitioned and is living her life as a woman.
What You Should Know: Altman uses an extraordinary set (by David Gropman) to help tell the story. Instead of one dime store, there are two, and a two-way mirror positioned between them allows the director to ease between the past and the present. It’s a neat trick. It also stars Cher. That’s pretty neat as well.
The Impact: While far from Altman’s biggest film, it’s one that resonates today thanks, in no small part, to its simplicity. This isn’t an “issues” movie. It’s a sweet slice of life, packed with southern charm and quirks and eccentricities. Watching Jimmy Dean doesn’t feel like watching something revolutionary, and that by itself is revolutionary. As Armond White wrote for Out in 2014, “Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is the most empathic of Altman’s egalitarian masterpieces… [his] knowingness about gendered experience produced portents of significant gay social and cultural developments from Matthew Shepherd to RuPaul and Orange Is the New Black. Not ahead of its time (a misleading phrase), Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean proves how insightful a deep and openhearted view of human experience can be.”
Essential Scene: “You’re just one of them perverts, that’s what you are.” “Well, that’s what you always thought I was, Juanita.”
Also See: The World According to Garp (1982): The Robin Williams-led adaptation of John Irving’s compelling (and feminist) novel earned John Lithgow an Oscar nomination for his thoughtful portrayal of Roberta Muldoon.
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Boys Don’t Cry (1999)
Director: Kimberly Peirce
Written By: Kimberly Peirce, Andy Bienen
What It’s About: Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank) is a young trans man (born Teena Brandon) living in Nebraska who falls in love with Lana Tisdel (Chloë Sevigny) after watching her sing karaoke. Throughout the film, it becomes apparent that Brandon is in trouble with the law and estranged from his family, but through his new connections, especially his blossoming relationship with Lana, he begins to feel at home in his own life.
Boys Don’t Cry is based on real events. That link, obviously, contains spoilers — if you can apply such terms to a film that’s more than 15 years old and inspired by facts.
What You Should Know: After her lauded portrayal of Brandon Teena, Hilary Swank served as a spokesperson for the Hetrick Martin Institute, an LGBTQ youth organization, for a decade.
The Impact: While this is another instance of a cisgender performer playing a transgender character, Swank’s portrayal was groundbreaking in its approach to telling Brandon’s story. Never for a moment does the film put his gender identity in question; never is he made a figure of fun. Brandon isn’t a saint, and Swank doesn’t play him as such. It’s a deeply sensitive and empathetic performance, in a film that’s as much about a love story (Sevigny is also terrific) as it is about the violence that brought it to an end. As the Advocate put it, “It’s easy to dismiss this as an “important” film, but Boys Don’t Cry, based on the true story of the murder of Brandon Teena, a young trans man killed in Nebraska, is actually an incredibly good one as well.”
Also important: Boys Don’t Cry was one of the first mainstream films to shine the light on some incredibly important issues. Brandon’s treatment at the hands of police might not pack the visceral shock of the physical crimes committed, but they’re also seriously damaging. Brandon is confined in a women’s prison, has his honesty and sanity questioned while attempting to report on an assault, and is outed — a development with major repercussions.
Essential Scene: The most unshakable scenes in the movie can’t really be discussed without revealing the ending — but this is a movie about a hate crime, and the film doesn’t flinch.
Also See: Paris Is Burning (1991), an intimate look at the Ball Culture in New York in the ’80s, which is much more than a documentation of vogueing and a collection of fabulous catchphrases — though it’s that, too. Jennie Livingston took years to make her film, following participants who dealt with racism, homophobia, transphobia, violence, sex work, and marginalization — and face the world with dignity, wit, and elegance.
More from the Decade: The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), The Crying Game (1992), All About My Mother (1999), and Ma Vie en Rose (1997)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Written By: John Cameron Mitchell, Stephen Trask
What It’s About: Hansel Schmidt (Mitchell), “a slip of a girlyboy,” becomes fascinated with “The Origin of Love,” a creation myth from Plato’s Symposium. The story suggests that humans were once two-headed, four-limbed beings — men attached with men, women attached with women, and women attached with men. When they defied the gods, they were split in two, leaving each being longing forever for their other half (and thus creating homosexuals and heterosexuals). Hansel believes he’ll find his other half only by leaving East Berlin and heading west, and the opportunity to do just that arises when he meets and falls in love with a US soldier who wishes to marry him. To leave, though, there’s a catch — their union must be between a man and a woman. Coerced into undergoing a vaginoplasty, Hansel (now Hedwig, pronounced head-vig) finds herself mutilated and left with “an angry inch” between her legs, a sacrifice made all the more painful when her marriage falls apart and the Berlin wall falls, making all she gave up even more senseless.
Fast-forward a bit, and an angry Hedwig, now outfitted with a glamorous persona and a wicked rock band, tours the country playing at a series of disreputable seafood joints. She’s also in pursuit of Tommy Gnosis, a former lover who abandoned her after learning she was not biologically female — then, to add insult to injury, stole her songs and used them to become a star.
What You Should Know: Mitchell himself says that Hedwig is not a transgender woman, but genderqueer. “She’s more than a woman or a man. She’s a gender of one and that is accidentally so beautiful.”
The Impact: Hedwig never seemed like it would be much of a hit, either as a musical or a film. Not so — the movie earned plenty of acclaim, including some hardware — but more importantly, it’s become something of a cult classic, earning legions of devoted fans around the world. It was subversive when it was made. Now? The musical earned Neil Patrick Harris a Tony Award, and it’s a bona fide hit.
Like Rocky Horror, it’s become a part of the midnight-movie canon, with sing-alongs and similar events cropping up from time to time. The biggest influence Hedwig may have had is the inclusion of a punk sensibility, coupled with lots of humor and heart, making the film neither campy nor dark and heavy in the way many previous films had been. Hedwig is not a subject of fun, and she’s not a saint. She’s still struggling and still figuring things out. She just happens to be kicking a lot of punk rock ass along the way.
Essential Scene: The dreamlike finale, “Midnight Radio”.
Also See: Venus Boyz (2002), a documentary that explores the perceptions and reality of femininity and masculinity through a drag king night at New York’s Club Casanova, as well as a community of transgender persons in London.
More from the Decade: Transamerica (2005), Wild Side (2004), Beautiful Boxer (2004), Breakfast on Pluto (2005)
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
Written By: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
What It’s About: When Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is diagnosed as HIV-positive, his initial reaction is to deny it — after all, AIDS is a disease for gay people (though Woodruff, a racist homophobe, says that in a more colorful — meaning offensive — way). When he finally accepts the diagnosis as truth, there’s another revelation coming hard on the heels of the first: the only treatment available, the drug AZT, is still in the trial stages of use in the US and thus isn’t an option. Being both a self-serving asshole and the hero of the movie, Woodruff promptly begins looking for ways around this. After a doctor in Mexico acquaints him with a non-approved drug cocktail that might do the trick, he soon realizes that by selling it to other patients in need, he can prolong his life and make a quick buck simultaneously.
That realization comes courtesy of Rayon (Jared Leto), a transgender woman. Our own Dominick Suzanne-Mayer summed it up this way in his review: “…because Dallas Buyers Club isn’t really in the subtlety business, Ron is initially repulsed by Rayon, only to learn lessons about friendship and mutual respect through struggle.” Together, they form the “buyers club” of the title, skirting around the law to get the drugs to those who need them.
What You Should Know: Leto himself decided that Rayon was a transgender woman. He told the Advocate that after reading the script, he saw her as “…not specifically as a drag queen, as a transvestite, or someone who just enjoys putting on women’s clothing. And I think it was a key distinction to make early on in the process. I think another actor may have looked at it, seen it, and saw a different character.”
The Impact: Leto and McConaughey earned Oscars (and a slew of other awards) for their remarkable performances in what was otherwise a mostly unremarkable biopic, but the most important thing Dallas Buyers Club accomplished was blowing the conversation about trans characters in film and television wide open. During the awards season, Leto veered between statements both offensive and inspiring, and reactions were similarly varied: should a cisgender performer play a trans person? If yes, is it appropriate to have a cisgender male actor play a transgender woman? Were transgender women considered for the role? Is Rayon — who is fictional — merely a vehicle through which the fictional version of Woodruff can “grow”? There are countless questions, and many more answers, but it’s the asking that’s the important thing.
Time ran an op-ed titled “Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender ‘Mammy’.” Trans acting coach Calpernia Addams, who worked with Leto on his portrayal, wrote in the Advocate that she believes “many of the haters hate Rayon because she isn’t beautiful, she isn’t passable, she isn’t gender-binary, she isn’t 2014-political. And when I see that elitist hypocrisy, I’m inclined to push back.” In contrast, trans writer Parker Marie Malloy wrote, also in the Advocate, that it isn’t Leto’s casting that’s the problem; it’s the choices made about Rayon: “All the trans females I saw on TV were boy-crazy, makeup-obsessed, over-the-top caricatures. That media stereotype was damaging to my health, leading me to believe I wasn’t trans — that I was just a broken person who probably shouldn’t exist on this earth.” For better or worse, Rayon (and Leto) pushed the way that trans characters and performers are treated into the mainstream, and if nothing else, that’s a positive development. But controversy remains.
In an interview with CBC’s Q radio program during the promotion of Buyers Club, director Vallée questioned whether or not there were any transgendered actors. This was before Netflix’s Sense8 and the introduction of Jamie Clayton, but it was after Laverne Cox was introduced to Netflix subscribers as Sophia in Orange Is the New Black. Vallée might not have known the answer to his question, but it’s quite possible he wasn’t looking hard enough to find it.
Essential Scene: Rayon’s visit to her father.
Also See: Tangerine, one of the best films of the year, which follows two trans working girls (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor) through LA on Christmas Eve.
More from the Decade: Albert Nobbs (2011), Becoming Chaz (2011), and television (Orange Is the New Black, Transparent, I Am Cait, and Ru Paul’s Drag Race, which has seen several contestants come out as trans on or after their time on the show).